Forms and features

ai sketchLet’s talk about making the characters for Intruder. I have an agenda with this topic. It is to shoot, chase down, finish off, hang up, and gut the typical discussions, usually framed as traumatic controversy, over who “really” created this or that famous comics character. Comics fans and journalists love these dust-ups, so much so that the blithering lasts decades and that one’s position becomes a deeply-felt identity within the framework of fandom. I’m here to tell you that they’re bone-deep stupid.

This is, by the way, the third of a series of posts concerning the comics story I did with Scott LeMien. The previous posts are Intruder alert and “I Am I”.

First up was and is Intruder himself, a.k.a. Jay LeBeau. The “I” themed, Ditko-homage outfit was obviously on-target from the start, so we focused on who this guy was and what he looks like. I knew the story would imply that the mask is “work clothes” rather than his sense of personhood.

intruderskullissuesbone cancer skullThe first step for that was to go big on the cancer. I didn’t want a demure little La Bohème “kaff kaff,” I wanted disfigurement, so went ahead and traumatized myself with searches on chondroblastic osteosarcoma, which I do not recommend, and sent this as well as some others to Scott. We discarded the displaced eye socket and thought about the impaired tissue being excised and replaced or filled-in with weird stuff.

At this point, the textual content was jumping up as well, including his name, geographic and economic background, and pertinent aspects of the story we’d be focusing on. I found an image for his pre-onset appearance and suggested the black, thicker hair and the Kubert glare, recalling that the character is only 35 years old and aiming for a wolfish look. Scott sought the range of expressions, i.e., that he has a range of emotions. Our imagining converged with this montage, and the rightmost three images in the top row became our model, to be referenced if and when later work seemed off somehow.

intruder heads

You might be wondering when our discussion of his powers came into any of this, and hey, bonus, that’s another little myth of comics fandom to hunt-and-kill-and-butcher, regarding character design. You don’t make up the powers. We had this bit from Scott’s original Supervillain You work:

powers

… + the visuals from his sketches, which implied a certain techno-whiz, perfect-timing, high-computer sphere of action + whatever internal standards we separately held regarding what we would later write and draw, to be assessed only at the point(s) of doing so.

And that’s all! We’d figure them out as we worked through a story or two, arriving at “just how powerful” and “limited how” based on fun, drawability, the plot of the moment, and whatever standard of plausibility-decency creators may adhere to, if any. That’s how you do “what are his powers.”

That ties directly into designing the AI entity, that aspect or origin of the critical “powers do what they want, often” concept. Again, the point was not to lay out a detailed Official Handbook entry, but instead to arrive at a similar profile of ideas and especially imagery. Scott had not provided this in his original crucible of crazy and it was not at all defined; it could have been part of his body like a physical symbiote, could be an external object … we weren’t even certain whether it’s “there” aside from him perceiving it.

But again, the task was not to create a laundry list of cans and can’ts, but merely to decide how to depict this character. Scott automatic-sketched a bunch of ideas for me to choose from or for me to extrapolate into something else.

 

ai pages

I chose the top left design of the second page, in some ways the edgiest version, because it was nothing like anything we’d previously said about this being, and we’d had no prior intentions of assigning gender imagery to it. Bringing that issue in raised all sorts of weirdness concerning the main character’s psychology and marriage history, and I had no immediate ah-ha sense of how that might fit or work. All I knew was that it did fit … somehow.

I said “let’s go with that one, and by the way, I dunno how the female implication is going to factor in,” and I also shifted the design so that the entity’s dialogue was kept within its shape outline, so that effectively, the outline is its own word balloon. This tied to or even established that it would be drawn to make it ambiguous whether anyone else could even see it.

wife and son

A lot of Scott’s crucible of crazy addressed the character’s upbringing and attempt to fit into success-happiness self-actualized middle-class (but effectively wealthy) lifestyle ideal. I was especially struck by the glimpses of his wife and son, and its core point that they tried very hard to make it all work, and that he imposes the divorce to protect them when he submits to experimentation. There’s a lot of potential story there which isn’t merely exposition to get over or a cheap mine for kneejerk tropes.

I named them Shelly and Daniel, and Scott and I were suspiciously in full agreement about some of the hassles faced by the son, considering that both of us have sons at about the same age. As the story idea evolved, we ultimately didn’t use these characters directly, but they remain as hidden-knowledge which informed our ideas about the events that you do see. As I’ll describe later for our plot/story process, I was able to sneak them back in briefly. If we ever do more Intruder material, I think a certain amount will be from Shelly’s point of view.

As (I hope) you saw in the story, Ali and Sharon are effectively the main characters. This arose from pinpointing one specific part of the Supervillain You material, itself determined by a dice roll:

It’s pretty meaty, because to show/tell this story, these characters are effectively doomed. I wanted the theme to remain open to the reader whether this event is Intruder’s “moral event horizon” or a tragic but ultimately acceptable price to pay for his triumph against the superheroes. For that to work, I had to arrive at characters I genuinely like and would, if I were a supervillain, value greatly as allies. The work began as all mine, searching out images of activists (not included in this post; these are real people), thinking about their attitudes and histories, and giving them names. Then Scott modified the likenesses to, as I suggested, “one hair away from lawsuit.”

sharonali

I chose the original photos in part because they simply spoke to me as right for the characters, but on the other hand, a great deal about my concepts for the characters was sparked by the images. After a little dialogue between us, Scott picked up the interpretations perfectly: Sharon with the no-bullshit, get-it-done attitude, but with a core of positive hope, and Ali with the superficially flip, even derpy demeanor but diamond-hard in his resolve.

20190719_233203Designing Crusader and Raxxus Xxan began with Scott’s brief statements in Supervillain You and that text’s mandate that they be establishmentarian, including the rules’ outcome that Intruder succeeds against them at a cost. The starting concepts were entirely Scott’s, via a sketch page you see here, including the notion that the Green Lantern expy was not a cop but a thief for whom the galactic cops might come looking. He also included a brainstorm mini-crucible about Crusader about his picture-perfect family-values personal life, and specifically that “The Crusader tells everything to his wife,” which opened a window of vulnerability to Intruder.

Bothcrusader of them were altered by us, but independently, i.e., without consulting the other. Scott changed Crusader’s look entirely; I changed Raxxus Xxan to female in order to have a gender-traditional marriage-and-mistress backstory for Crusader, because my immediate response to the line about telling his wife (immediately “Amanda” to me for some reason) everything was “Except …?” My thoughts on that replaced Scott’s plot idea from the crucible.

This is a great example of my intended point. The appearances and relationships among Crusader, Amanda, and Raxxus Xxan are a critical plot point; there is no story, or rather, it couldn’t be this story, without it. But its creative origin is in no way a discrete point of single-microsecond inspiration that occurred in one person’s head. It lies at the intersection of individual contributions, communications, personal revisions, and reincorporations in the context of making a particular sort of plotline.

They’re all like that! In one way or another, each character emerged among these dynamics: Ron says, Scott does; Scott says, Ron does; Ron says, Scott changes; Scott says, Ron changes; Ron says, Scott interprets and extends, Ron implements; Scott says, Ron interprets and extends, Scott implements. Ron falters or weakens something, Scott insists; Scott falters or weakens something, Ron insists. Not one of them can be isolated to a single person having a single idea (“vision”) at a single moment.

That’s why there’s nothing sacred about a sketch compared to any other device of communication, as merely one means of expression among many throughout any of these exchanges. It’s not a smoking gun Perry Mason can wave around in a TV courtroom during an admit-it-you-did-it monologue.

I’m so sick of the fake-intellectual art-talk. Any such controversy only takes on its social, fan-journalist weight when it’s about IP. It’s money-talk pretending to be aesthetic, consumerism pretending to be ethical.

Let’s say in twenty years Intruder is a huge phenom, a franchise across multiple media, probably filtered through a series of owners, creators, and one or two reboots. (Yes, I know. Not gonna happen. I’m making a rhetorical point, work with me here.) At this point, I’d be 75 and Scott would be around 60, both of us long removed from anything to do with the property, and indeed, except for squinty-eyed “old internet comics” aficionados, the original story is barely known or at best, considered quaint.

Someone, maybe one of us, or more likely someone purporting to represent one of us, gets a bug up their ass about who “really” created … oh, let’s say Raxxus Xxan. Who knows, maybe she’s generated a big spin-off associated with the pop-political imagery controversy de jour, everyone has an opinion, and there’s all this hoorah about who plays her in the next movie. Do you think the sequence of creative-interchange events as I’ve described here would carry any water – or even be comprehensible – in the ensuing storm of pop culture buzz? Hell no. Someone would dig up the sketch in whatever compromised version of the Wayback Machine persists and OMG – Raxxus Xxan was “supposed to” be a man! That’s how Scott LeMien, the creator you know, originally conceived it! After all, this is the sketch – the original vision, the proof – you can’t argue with it!

Also, you can reverse that last bit to someone digging up Supervillain You (obviously long lost and forgotten, if anyone even knew about it in the first place), and change up the OMG dialogue to “Ron Edwards was the genius behind it all, that LeMien guy just played the game,” which is equally stupid. Historically, the perennial romance of the visuals does skew such talk toward the artist and especially toward concept sketches, but it could conceivably go the other way. So this isn’t art vs. words I’m talking about, it’s about the inherent Fan Dumb in the concept of the “actual creator’s original vision” from the outset.

Now, you couldn’t just ask either of us – the answer you’d get would be a direct function of whatever payment and recognition histories we’d separately experienced throughout the growth boom of the franchise, as well as whatever personal exchanges we may have had in the interim. Never mind blurred memory, it’d be all about whatever role we’d been assigned in the pop manufactroversy, and how much either of us internalized that role as a function of re-entering the public eye and being associated far more with the franchise than we’d been before – and being cast as in competition for it. Pretty enticing, cognitively, especially if accompanied by a little bit of “did you see what he said about you” poison-pouring, and easily worth obscuring actual events for.

Well, now I’m all depressed and pissed-off. Sometimes I think we’d all be better off if Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, et al., had run out a couple of years each with the original few creators, restricted to that single medium (newsstand comics), to be replaced by creators and characters with a similar fate, over and over, with nary a radio show, newspaper strip, movie serial, lunchbox, board game, licensed t-shirt, action figure, Slurpee Cup, Playstation game, or other accessory in sight.

About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on March 1, 2020, in Adept Comics, Supers role-playing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Dear Doctor Xaos,

    I hope you decide someday to present Champions stats for him, he would be very difficult, no?

    One of the things that I imagine would be really hard, assuming you would allow him in play, is the influence of the AI/powers doing what it wants and frustrating a player somehow, that would make it hard for him to be an NPC villain, I imagine. Of course, your games are laden with incredible ideas for situations like these, so I would love to hear how you’d handle it, with Intruder, or any hero who had similar power sharing problems.

    Sincerely,
    Mind-controlled in Massachusetts

    Like

    • Witless poltroon! You have dared guess what the Master of Malevolence may do?! BAH!

      (look forward the next several posts to compare RPG interpretations of Intruder in detail)

      Like

  2. I agree with 99% of this post, but there’s a remak here that really set my teeth on edge.

    “I’m so sick of the fake-intellectual art-talk. Any such controversy only takes on its social, fan-journalist weight when it’s about IP. It’s money-talk pretending to be aesthetic, consumerism pretending to be ethical.”

    Well, okay. But that’s railing against a straw man.

    Money isn’t just money. In comics, especially in the mid-20th Century, money meant food for your family, along with housing and medical care. And the financial means to go on creating comics–which is to say, more art.

    I’ve been reading the Typhoid Mary arc in “Daredevil” recently. And you’re right, I don’t care especially who contributed what to the story. Figuring that out is an academic exercise… until someone gets hurt. Ask Bill Finger whether sorting out who-actually-did-what matters.

    In the context of American super hero comics publishing especially, where the whole industry ran for decades by cheating and exploiting its workers, authorship matters.

    Like

    • Ohhh, I got a whole bag of response to this one. Coming soon.

      Like

    • No comics blog is complete without a creators’ rights proclamation!

      I’m on a lot of closed groups with comics people now, including names you’ve seen in the various declarations and news items and legal battles for this topic. I get to read plenty of mansplaining about it, so you can consider me constantly re-educated therein, despite understanding it allll by myself for some time (that will happen if one got into Cerebus in the mid-80s; see The Creators Bill of Rights).

      Everything you’ve written agrees with my point. First, that comics as a business screws the creators. I’ll go one further and say that it also rewards the nastier creators who stay a step ahead, i.e., the ones who screw their colleagues benefit via collusion.

      That’s what happened with our man Bill Finger. He was screwed not only by National (that list of victims is long!) but by Bob Kane, whose handshake with National left a lot of creators’ figurative corpses floating in its wake. And yet the comics fans leak a proud tear every time “Batman created by Bob Kane” appears on their screens.

      Second, and what I think you’re missing, is that debate over who created what, in terms of which creator who was manifestly involved at one point or another, is a diversion from the real problem – not its solution, or any solution at all. Since the creative activity is necessarily non-determinative, and since no actual company gives two shits for … well, for anything, the disputes are forced to leverage the company via the optics. Therefore the dispute devolves into a competition of image-creation for fandom, seeking the leverage – and thus creating a subculture of wholly metaphysical argument that demands that creativity work in a legalistic fashion although it absolutely doesn’t.

      Among the many examples, but particularly instructive, is the Gaiman-McFarlane kerfuffle over Miracle Man (by whatever name), in which each played a classic favorite role in this kind of image-creation to perfection: respectively, the puppy with the wounded paw (“but I made it”) and the charming asshole (“it’s mine”). I like this one because for once the legal system did a great job in determining that both of them were full of it.

      The real problem is that people aren’t paid a living wage for work that manifestly produces living-wage returns. The secondary problem – which occupies more attention – is that work that becomes more profitable later benefits those who currently hold power over it as product, rather than anyone who originated its content.

      Duh, right? News at 11!

      Until those problems get skewered at the source, the personal tragedies will continue. When and if they become public perception contests, the resulting impenetrable fanwank reinforces the problems’ existence, because they are normalized as the unshakeable context. If you get diverted into who created Wolverine and whether his claws “could” retract in The Incredible Hulk #182 (since they didn’t do so in the story), you will never come a whole Starlin cosmos within addressing those problems in the industry of comics.

      Yeah, I’m happy Jack Kirby finally got his hands on whatever remained of the art that Cadence totally stole from him throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Was it because that was the right thing to do, and Jack created it all with no Stan or anyone else? No! It’s because Marvel changed ownership and New World Entertainment had no stake in the situation at all. Before that, Shelly Feinberg didn’t care about the optics one bit and if Marvel had remained in/as Cadence, then Jack would have whistled into the night for his art forever.
      Yeah, I’m glad that Mick Anglo received a nice windfall of funds for Marvelman (and subsequent names), and that his final moments were somewhat eased – but think about it. The guy went sixty years without pay for others’ use of that property, and that’s a tragedy that cannot be compensated, I don’t for how much money, if you get it barely a year before you die. The harm in these things is already done.

      Now let’s debate about whether Mick Anglo “really” created Marvelman for the U.K. company L. Miller & Son in the early 1950s, after Captain Marvel was no longer producing stories to be reprinted in the U.S. Yeah. I’ll say he did and you say he didn’t, and we can wrangle indefinitely over how much of Marvelman is “original,” “really” created by Anglo, and how much is “ripoff,” specifically of the Captain Marvel stories that immediately preceded Marvelman in reprint form. Sure! That’ll solve everything.

      Liked by 1 person

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